2007.01 17 How about a tasty e-meal?

Written by David Green.

Feeling hungry? How about a nice, tasty e-meal?


By RICH FOLEY

Don’t you just love the way inventors keep coming up with new ideas to separate the lonely from their money? Last fall, there was the guy in Europe who had the brainstorm of selling compact discs with pre-recorded dinner conversations on them. The lonely could play them while they ate at home, pretending they were at a real restaurant, listening in on the dialogue of a family of complete strangers. Sounds a little pathetic, doesn’t it?

Now, a technology company in Chicago has taken that idea much further with the introduction of “The Virtual Family Dinner.” This system allows family members in different locations to share a “virtual” meal together with a system not unlike the video conferencing used today in some businesses.

Targeted at the elderly, the system would have a camera and microphone in the kitchen, as well as a video screen as small as a picture frame up to as large as a television screen (depending, I guess, on the size of your loneliness and bank account). Another family member (or members), miles or even states away, would have similar setups. When the system detects the elderly person preparing to eat, the other family members hooked to the system are notified, allowing them to go to their own kitchen. They can then see, converse with, or even eat their own meal along with their loved one.

An Associated Press story quotes Dadong Wan, a researcher for system developer Accenture Ltd. as saying, “We are trying to really bring back the kind of family interactions we used to take for granted.” You mean, before all the technological innovations made people too busy to spend time talking with their families?

Folks who see this system as a good idea think it could aid in keeping an eye on elderly family members who eat too little or the wrong foods, and might assist in helping the elderly stay in their own homes longer.

Others think it could result in a loss of privacy for the elderly, as well as being a way of compiling evidence to help prove their inability to live alone.

The people at Accenture hope to sell the system to government agencies and insurance companies, probably not great news to those already concerned about health care costs. Plus, they’re missing out on what could be a potentially much larger target audience: lonely single people with more money than good sense.

Think of the possibilities...what hungry, lonely single guy wouldn’t pay to have a virtual meal with say, Rachael Ray? The cooking diva would describe the tasty gourmet meal she’s preparing for herself while trying not to laugh at the microwave burrito and tater tots you’re having. Of course, the video screen on her side would be huge and divided into hundreds of small windows to accommodate all those willing to put up the money to participate.

Or how much would it be worth to you to be able to tell your friends you “had a drink with Jessica Simpson” last night? You’d have to leave out the part about how you drank a stale beer at your kitchen table while you watched Simpson on a video screen having a pastel-colored “girly drink” at some Hollywood hot spot.

Lonely single women are potential prospects for this type of idea, too. There’s probably enough of a market willing to pay to have a virtual connection with a male celebrity like Brad Pitt or George Clooney to make it worthwhile to pay the celebrity for their participation.

The more I consider this, the more applications I can think of for the technology. Lots of people might be willing to pay for a virtual relationship with sports stars, singers, etc. Politicians could use it in virtual fund-raisers. The possibilities are almost endless.

I suppose I should keep these plans to myself until I have a chance to contact the Accenture people and try to sell them on expanding their target market. I would think my ideas have an earnings potential in the millions, with a healthy chunk of that owed to me. I just hope they don’t decide to pay me in virtual money. Then I’d be the one stuck buying a virtual dinner.

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